Hugh Williamson and Alexander Hamilton echoed Morris in asking the discontented few to put aside their misgivings in favor of unanimity. Hamilton actually had no technical right to sign the Constitution, because the absence of his two naysaying New York colleagues, Yates and Lansing, meant that New York was not even entitled to vote on the document. This did not, however, stop him from making his own speech urging all of the delegates to sign and, when the time came, stepping forward and affixing his name to the document. Hamilton warned ominously that a “few characters of consequence by opposing or even refusing to sign the constitution, might do infinite mischief.” Acknowledging his position at the far right of the political spectrum, he reminded the delegates that “no man’s ideas were more remote from the plan than his own were known to be; but it is possible to deliberate between anarchy and convulsion on the one side, and the chance of good to be expected from the plan on the other.”

At least one delegate, William Blount of North Carolina, was brought into line by the strategy conceived by Morris and articulated by Franklin. Following Hamilton’s speech, Blount announced that though he had not intended to sign the document, “I am relieved by the form proposed and will without committing myself, attest to the fact that the plan was the unanimous act of the states in the Convention.”

Randolph, Mason, and Gerry would stand their ground. Randolph was obviously torn, and possibly repentant. As Madison recorded Randolph’s final words on that day, “In refusing to sign the Constitution, I take a step which might be the most awful of my life, but it is [a step] dictated by my conscience, and it is not possible for me to hesitate, much less, to change.” Elbridge Gerry, though admitting “the painful feelings of his situation,” was more combative in reiterating his objections. Gerry, along with Mason, was still clinging to his old classical republican fears. With the tumult of Shays’ Rebellion still in mind, he continued to worry “that a Civil War may result from the present crisis of the United States.” The source of that crisis, Gerry believed, was the clash of two opposing parties, “one devoted to democracy, the worst of all political evils, the other as violent in the opposite extreme.” It was for these reasons that he had supported the idea of a Convention, but he now concluded that the final result of the Convention combined some of the worst elements of each of the two extremes. Unlike Randolph, who seemed genuinely pained not to join Franklin (not to mention his fellow Virginian, George Washington, whom he had literally begged to come to the Convention), Gerry appeared to resent Franklin’s remarks, commenting acidly that “I cannot … but view them as leveled at myself and the other gentlemen who meant not to sign.”

Franklin’s speech had accomplished as much as it could, but no more. It had brought William Blount into the camp of those willing to sign the Constitution, but two South Carolina delegates, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Pierce Butler, “disliked the equivocal form of the signing” proposed in Franklin’s motion. On that note of mild discord, the delegates voted on Franklin’s motion. “Done in Convention by the unanimous consent of the States present the 17th of September … In Witness thereof we have hereunto subscribed our names.” Franklin’s motion passed, with 10 states in favor and South Carolina divided.

Before proceeding to the formal signing, the delegates spent several minutes trying to decide what to do with the official journals of the Convention that were kept, however haphazardly, by William Jackson. The delegates’ fear, as Rufus King expressed it, was that “if suffered to be made public a bad use would be made of them.” The two suggestions put forward were either to destroy them—a decision that would have made the scanty Convention record even scantier—or to deposit them in the custody of the president of the Convention. The delegates agreed to the latter scheme by a vote of 10 states to one, with the Maryland delegates objecting because they had been explicitly instructed by their legislature to report the proceedings of the Convention back to their state.’’

This left the “president,” General Washington, in a bit of a quandary. What was he supposed to do with the Convention papers, and what if members of the Convention asked him for copies? The delegates ultimately decided that Washington should hold the papers under conditions of strict secrecy until a “Congress, if ever formed under the Constitution,” could give him further instructions. Washington would officially convey the journals of the Convention to the Department of State in December 1796, just before he left office as president, and the Congress continued to impose a prohibition against publishing them until 1818.

Left unresolved was what the other delegates would do with their materials from the Convention. Nearly all of the delegates had, with varying degrees of diligence, retained copies of the various drafts and reports that had been produced by the Convention, and several had made notes along the way. The most thorough of these were produced by Madison, who had taken extraordinary pains to record the proceedings. Remarkably, given the size of the egos and the diversity of personalities present at the Convention, the delegates who had kept their own diaries and notes during the Convention kept their resolve as well, waiting until the Congress lifted its ban on their publication. From that time forward, bit by bit, various delegates—or their descendants—began to make portions of their notes public.

Again, Madison presents the most interesting case. He began to review his notes and make revisions, entering into an active correspondence with a number of key figures, soon after the Convention journals were published in 1819. However, he remained true to a pledge he had made to himself—to withhold the publication of his notes until after his death, in 1836.

 

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